Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Shock! Antarctic Sea Ice is Growing!

The Australian was so full of climate change contrarians on Saturday that it was hard to know where to start. But since both Roarprawn and Whaleoil have pointed to this article on Antarctic ice the problem is solved.

This is a particularly easy instance since the main factual claim made in the article is true. (Not always the case in discussions of climate issues that you find in the newspaper!) It just happens not to say much one way or the other about global warming.

East Antarctica is four times the size of west Antarctica and parts of it are cooling. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research report prepared for last week's meeting of Antarctic Treaty nations in Washington noted the South Pole had shown "significant cooling in recent decades".

Australian Antarctic Division glaciology program head Ian Allison said sea ice losses in west Antarctica over the past 30 years had been more than offset by increases in the Ross Sea region, just one sector of east Antarctica.

"Sea ice conditions have remained stable in Antarctica generally," Dr Allison said.

This is not a "climate change lie exposed" as Whaleoil claims, scientists have known this for a long time and have said so. Now we just have better data. It is not even clear to me that there is "a widespread public belief" that Antartic sea ice is contracting as the article claims. (The Arctic is of course another matter, and maybe many confuse the two?)

Why does increasing Antarctic sea ice not challenge current scientific thinking about global warming? I'll defer to the US agency the National Snow and Ice Data Center

Another important point is that the increase in Antarctic sea ice extent is not surprising to climate scientists. When scientists refer to global warming, they don’t mean warming will occur everywhere on the planet at the same rate. In some places, temporary cooling may even occur. Antarctica is an example of regional cooling. Even our earliest climate models projected that Antarctica would be much slower in responding to rising greenhouse gas concentrations than the Arctic. In large part, this reflects the nature of the ocean structure in Antarctica, in which water warmed at the surface quickly mixes downward, making it harder to melt ice.

In terms of sea ice, climate model projections of Antarctic sea ice extent are in reasonable agreement with the observations to date. It also appears that atmospheric greenhouse gases, as well as the loss of ozone, have acted to increase the winds around Antarctica. Perhaps counter intuitively, this has further protected the Antarctic from warming and has fostered more ice growth.

The one region of Antarctica that is strongly warming is the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and is thus less protected by the altered wind pattern. The Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing ice shelf collapse and strongly reduced sea ice.

Why are scientists very concerned by reductions in Arctic sea ice but don't seem to talk much about Antarctic sea ice?

Unlike Arctic sea ice, Antarctic sea ice disappears almost completely during the summer, and has since scientists have studied it. Earth’s climate system over thousands of years has been "in tune" with this annual summertime disappearance of Antarctic sea ice. However, satellite records and pre-satellite records indicate that the Arctic has not been free of summertime sea ice for at least 5,500 years and possibly for 125,000 years. So Earth’s climate system and ecosystems, as they exist today, did not develop in conjunction with an ice-free Arctic. Such an ice-free Arctic summer environment would be a change unprecedented in modern human history and could have ramifications for climate around the world.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The New Zealand Option

I have yet to read Hugh White's Lowy Institute paper on Australian Defence Paper.

However I have listened to his recent talk at the Institute.

As I have noted earlier, White's analysis is that during the course of the coming century the growth of Chinese economic and military power will strain the international order in the Pacific and may lead to a significant danger of conflict.

White sees three options for Australia in this environment.

1/ To recommit to the US alliance and accept that this will require greatly increased military committments from Australia.

2/ To aim for a more self-reliant defence and a more independent foreign policy stance.

3/ The New Zealand option.

Now my readers outside Australia, particularly those in New Zealand, should note that this is a laugh line.

White is arguing that the first two options, which would see Australia retain its status as something called a "middle power", will require a much greater expenditure on defence as fraction of GDP. The third alternative is, for the moment, unthinkable.

(Are there any countries other than Canada and Australia that actually aspire to the status of "middle power"?)

If this analysis of China becomes widespread in Australia surely New Zealand's "independent" defence and foreign policy would come under much greater pressure from our nearest neighbour?

Debate on Australian Defence White Paper

I'm going to keep linking to discussions of the Australian Defence White Paper, largely because there will be a New Zealand Defence White Paper ramping up later in the year.

Hugh White's Lowy Institute paper, which I blogged about earlier, has now been released in full.

There have been a series of interesting and apparently well-informed comments on this in the Interpreter blog. Take a look here and work backwards.

I'm particularly sympathetic to Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan's concerns that money be spent so that actual defence capabilities are consistent with the rhetoric of defence strategy as described in the White Paper and elsewhere.

The immediate priority for the government is not to be subverted by images of heroic strategic leadership (which do not have to be funded for many years) but to the serious but less sexy duty of repairing the current defence force.

Of course there is no show without Punch, and it was only a matter of time before Greg Sheridan got stuck into White in the pages of the Australian.

White is a very faithful lover. Many decades ago he fell in love with the idea of maritime denial as Australia's strategic lodestar and from that he deduced that the force structure for the ADF should focus overwhelmingly on submarines and fighter aircraft.

In his preposterous paper, which so far has escaped critical scrutiny, White calls for 200 JSFs and 18 submarines, and an enlarged but lightweight army, deliberately not equipped to fight even in medium-intensity theatres such as Afghanistan, configured as a gendarmerie for use in policing roles in the South Pacific.

I'd been puzzling over the exact role of White's Lowy paper in relation to Government debates about the official White paper. Particularly since White was responsible for drafting the previous Australian Defence White Paper in 2000.

Graeme Dobell is very enlightening on this point, and very entertaining on Army views on White.

Hugh spent enough years in Parliament House to know how the political wheels turn. Thus, I read his Lowy paper as not just a wonk prescription.

Don’t see the paper as a faux Defence White Paper. Consider it, instead, as a particularly well written and explicit Cabinet submission. It is the sort of policy paper that goes to Ministers as the White Paper is prepared. And in the final White Paper, much of the meaty stuff — such as the tough discussion of China — gets watered down or cut out.

Who's talking about Ireland now?

It became very tedious a few years ago to listen to continual unfavourable comparisons of New Zealand with Ireland coming from the kind of commentators on New Zealand economy and politics that read the Wall Street Journal.

Given that Ireland was an EU member, a short plane flight from continental Europe, I was never sure that the comparison should carry much weight.

Nevertheless it might pay to note that Ireland has, perhaps predictably, been a major victim of the global financial crisis, with GDP this year predicted to fall 10% below its peak.

Paul Krugman's description of the situation there may have some lessons for New Zealand.

How did Ireland get into its current bind? By being just like us, only more so. Like its near-namesake Iceland, Ireland jumped with both feet into the brave new world of unsupervised global markets. Last year the Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the third freest economy in the world, behind only Hong Kong and Singapore.

One part of the Irish economy that became especially free was the banking sector, which used its freedom to finance a monstrous housing bubble. Ireland became in effect a cool, snake-free version of coastal Florida.

Then the bubble burst. The collapse of construction sent the economy into a tailspin, while plunging home prices left many people owing more than their houses were worth. The result, as in the United States, has been a rising tide of defaults and heavy losses for the banks.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Run Twyford

I have to say that the Dim-Post has brought me round to his compelling common sense point of view on the Mt Albert by-election. The alleged "Tizard issue" really is "pure, unadulterated bullshit".

Labour has allowed this inside the beltway issue to be framed by Kiwiblog, with the mainstream media falling into line behind. This course of events is all too familiar from the election campaign. It is time for some serious push-back.

The by-election is about who should be the electorate MP for Mt Albert and as far as I can tell Twyford is far and away the best person for the job. The Labour selection process should certainly not be second guessed in response to DPF and the Herald.

Tizard, on the other hand, is a properly selected list candidate and she's perfectly entitled to go back into Caucus if she gets the opportunity. Voters in Mt Albert will vote for the best person to represent them and the presence or otherwise of Judith Tizard on the Labour list will not be a major issue, just as National knows the identity of their next list candidate will not be a big issue should Melissa Lee prove to be competitive in the seat.

What's more, if we are going to start talking about apparently underperforming list MPs, I'd take Judith Tizard over Richard Worth any day.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Clark's Valedictory

I have to say I enjoyed it. I think it's a bit early to expect Clark to be trumpeting her failings. None of us can yet give a really balanced opinion of the events of 2008 or the successes and failures of the third term of the fifth Labour government.

I recommend the extended interview on Focus on Politics.

Several points she made there, rather than in the speech, were particularly interesting to me:

Firstly, she mentioned the book "Head and Shoulders" edited by Virginia Myers in reference to her early experiences in Parliament. I've long thought that this interview was by a very great margin the single most enlightening account of Clark that I have come across. Re-reading it just now, it's remarkably prophetic of later developments. Some form of split with Anderton has already occured over his public comments in the wake of the Timaru by-election. "That caused some difficulties between us. But I have a strong sense of self-preservation. I didn't come this far to be burnt out in a hail of gunfire." She rejects being labelled as a communist or a Bennite, "I don't see myself as a radical at all, but as very much mainstream Labour --- what would be called 'social democrat' overseas." Despite being on the outs with Caucus at the time of the interview she is looking to the future "Perhaps my chance will come with the fifth Labour government. That could be about 1996 and I'll just be in my prime!". You can find copies in any decent NZ second-hand bookshop.

Secondly, I think she may have hinted at oneday writing a considered and well researched account of her time in politics. This would be an enormous service to our political culture. The fourth Labour government has so far produced only disappointing accounts from its participants. Lange and Bassett have written rushed and unreflective books, despite Bassett's remarkable notes and historical training. Meanwhile Douglas has jumped back into the political fray when it would be much more useful for him to be writing a really good book.

And thirdly, I have to admit that, yes, in response to something like the famous John Dickerson question (what were your mistakes? or regrets?), Clark really did sound more like Bush II than Frank Sinatra. But perhaps that is a mistake too small to mention.

How the Mighty Are Fallen

The Sydney Morning Herald this weekend carried this opinion piece from Roy Masters on the front page above the fold. (I have already recycled the paper version but I am almost certain that the print and online versions have been edited differently.)

Apparently Polynesian players in the NRL are the big issue no one in the League is prepared to tackle. I read the whole thing but I couldn't for the life of me determine exactly what the issue is. This excerpt though says far more about Roy Masters and the SMH editors than it does about any "issues" facing the NFL.

The Pacific Island player is the elephant in the rugby league dressing room: officials, fearful of being accused of rascism, won't comment about his impact at the junior leagues, where he stampedes over lighter, whiter opponents, or the challenge he represents to the entrenched ethos of some traditional NRL clubs. He is reshaping the code's demographics at either end of the rugby league age spectrum.

Anecdotally, the number of junior players of European background is falling because they resent having to tackle the bigger, stronger Pacific Islanders in the same age group. In the senior ranks, NRL clubs rush to sign Pacific Islanders who are perceived to be more durable, recovering from injury more quickly.

Injury-prone though he is, one begins to see why Sonny Bill fled to France.

The Australian Defence White Paper and China

The Australian this weekend carried a front page article on the Australian Defence White Paper.

It appears that the Rudd Government has overridden the assessment of Australian intelligence agencies. The intelligence agencies apparently regard failed and failing states in Australia's vicinity and involvement with the UN and the US in counter-insurgency operations further afield as the main challenges of the ADF in coming years.

Others in Defence wanted to see a more aggressive effort to confront China.

Senior Defence officials argued privately that the ADF needed to be structured to enable it to play a key support role alongside US forces in any future conflict with Beijing. "They saw the rise of China as the new Cold War and decided that this needed to be the focus of future strategy," said one Defence insider.

Apparently the hawks won, and there will be a significant build-up of Australian defence capabilities to combat the growth of Chinese military power.

The standoff between the intelligence doves and defence hawks has gone all the way to Kevin Rudd personally.

But the hawks have won, and Australia will spend more than $100 billion over the next two decades to boost its naval and air war-fighting capacity.

The rise of China will shape Australia's defence planning for a generation.

The Rudd Government's defence white paper, due out later this month, will call for a more potent and costly maritime defence for Australia.

The expansion of Australia's sea and air defences will include a doubling of the submarine fleet, 100 joint strike fighters, new spy planes, as well as powerful new surface warships.

The White Paper should finally emerge before the end of the month.

Also in the Weekend Australian a foretaste of Hugh White's forthcoming Lowy Institute paper on the White Paper. He seems to very much agree with expanding the submarine and fighter jet fleets. He calls on the Government to dramatically increase defence spending, in order to be able to maintain its strategic weight in the region against competitors whose GDPs are growing rapidly.

To build a focused force to achieve Australia's long-term strategic objectives as they are now defined would need spending 2.5 per cent of GDP or more. This is not unthinkable: it is comparable with our defence spending in the 1970s and '80s.

Ministers will be tempted to say we can afford all the forces we need within current funding projections if it is spent more efficiently. That may be wishful thinking. Huge efficiencies in defence are possible but they will require really forceful leadership to achieve, and that has been lacking for a long time. And even if new brooms can turn defence on its head, the long-term trends suggest that Australia has no choice but to spend more on defence or accept a steady decline in strategic weight. A mere 20 years ago Australia's economy was the second largest in Asia after that of Japan: larger than India's or China's. How quickly the balance has shifted.

I can't resist mentioning that currently the RAN is often unable to operate more than half of its existing submarine fleet due to skill shortages, and, one understands, low morale.

A side-note to New Zealand readers: to take the temperature of the current debate in Australia on relations with China you should google the names of Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and Chinese-born businesswoman Helen Liu.

You might think that this enormous focus on the future of the Chinese relationship in our nearest neighbour and closest ally might arouse just the slightest interest in the New Zealand media. Particularly given that we are about to undertake our own Defence White Paper. Particularly given that Prime Minister Key is even now in China. As the indispensible Tailor of Panama St notes so eloquently today, that is far too much to expect of our dangerously withered media organisations.